I am not normally inclined to write about pop culture, particularly TV shows, but I will admit openly that I am, and remain, a fan of True Detective — both seasons. The flak taken by Season 2, which just wrapped up on Sunday, is understandable. Season 1 was arresting because of where it chose to go. The fact that creator Nic Pizzolatto managed to create one of the best television characters ever in Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle didn’t hurt either. There was no way the sophomore run stood a critical chance, which may have been for the best. For instead of trying to recreate the natural hell on earth that is a certain conceptualization of the South (one Cormac McCarthy has made a career out of tapping into), Pizzolatto opted to drop his audience into a more obvious world of desolation, debauchery, and deceit: the wastes that surround the unduly romanticized urban nightmare that has always been Los Angeles. And then he went one step further. Instead of populating it with ritzy, clever, and sexy celebrities, he chose instead to fill it — and thus this season — with a band of losers — losers who may have had glimpses of glory if they had made a few dozen right turns in their respective lives, but losers nonetheless. They entered the world beaten, and their chances of ever making it through whole were almost impossible. In fact, death proved for 3/4ths of them the only avenue to completeness.
Knowing as I do that few who read this web-log have seen either season of the series, I am hesitant to go into specifics. So I won’t. All I will say is that despite the unwarranted snark of social media, True Detective Season 2 managed to add up to what it advertised itself as during the first episode: A slow burn noir intentionally entangled with all of the shopworn, but rightly time-honored, elements of heist, redemption, and tragic love flicks. Both Rust and Marty Hart from Season 1 had their unlikable characteristics, but this time out True Detective challenged its viewers to cling to characters that had almost no redeeming characteristics at first blush. All of them, even Vince Vaughn’s occasionally overplayed Frank Semyon, came into the frame with glaring defects none of them could, or would, solve on their own. At points, each, particularly Frank, imagined a better life, but it was always out of their reach. Sure, it’s cliche to say they were victims of “forces beyond their control,” but let’s be honest. How many lives shake out like that? Most may not experience the promise of a luxurious straight life set forth after years of being a common, ruthless gangster, but few deny themselves the dream of a stable, normal life with someone to love, hold, and ultimately understand them. Perhaps Frank had that; none of the ostensibly “real detectives” in this series — Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) — ever did, at least not until it was too late to matter.
As far as I can tell few critics — or social media pontificators — picked up on what seems to me to be the unifying theme of both seasons of True Detective: truth, loyalty, and justice, even if it’s ugly. True detectives — in this world at least — don’t operate with time sheets and dry-erase boards that chart clearance rates; they see their mission in the field as something more, something that constitutes who they are or, rather, who they believe they are supposed to be. They don’t operate outside of the conventions of the law because of some misplaced desire to appear grittier than they are. They do it because they have to, and in so doing they unravel the petty self-deceptive narratives they wrote for themselves a long time before the camera got rolling. Too many viewers lurched after the possibility of another macabre mystery similar to last season. Instead they were met with the usual: power, corruption, and lies. The fact True Detective‘s audience may be cold a priori to these visceral elements of a fallen world speaks more about them than it does the show.
“We get the world we deserve.” That was this season’s tag line, and those words are placed on Ray’s lips early in the season. By the end, it is Ani who is opining that “we deserve a better world.” That’s telling, because the Ray who fatalistically accepts the state of existence in which he first believes he is thrown into and later understands he has chosen is not the same Ray we see in either the penultimate or final episodes. It is easier to feign acceptance of a world so overrun by grotesque horror than to imagine, if even for a moment, something better could shine through. By the end of this season’s finale, Ray realizes it. Paul realized it before the end, and it is Ani, the one member of the central lineup whose own demons were not of her design despite her protestations to the contrary, that reveals a glimmer of a spark of hope in the midst of the other characters’ self-chosen trajectory to non-being.